Minister declares loyalist groups have ended truce

The Government has formally declared that the ceasefires of two of Northern Ireland's most dangerous loyalist groupings are over.

While the authorities made clear they believed they had no choice but to make the declaration on Friday, they will be hoping against hope that the move does not signify that the peace process is unravelling.

The practical effects of pronouncing that the Government no longer recognises the ceasefires of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), also known as the Ulster Freedom Fighters, and Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) are limited. Although there will be some minor penalties for the groups, there are not expected to be serious consequences such as large-scale swoops on their members. Both groups have shown themselves indifferent to any such move by the Government.

John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said the groups had "systematically breached their ceasefire and the patience of the people of Northern Ireland has run out".

Announcing he had taken the technical step of specifying the organisations, he said: "They seem determined to spurn the opportunity – given to them by the people – to make the transition from violence to democracy."

The UDA and LVF have been involved in hundreds of violent acts in the past 12 months, but the authorities have been reluctant to completely cast them out from the peace process.

The feeling was that a preferable course of action was to keep them involved with the process, even in the most tenuous way, rather than remove all constraints on their behaviour.

Friday's move came after the recent LVF killing of the journalist Martin O'Hagan in Lurgan, Co Armagh. Mr O'Hagan, who worked for the Dublin-based Sunday World, was killed last month while he walked home with his wife.

Two weeks ago the UDA was publicly warned by Mr Reid that he had been within hours of specifying the group, but held his hand when information reached him that the organisation intended to curtail its violence.

The UDA has been one of the prime movers in the summer of violence in Northern Ireland, particularly in north Belfast. Mr Reid said at the time: "I give this warning – if there is UDA-inspired violence in Belfast tonight, the UDA will be specified tomorrow. There will be no warning, no ultimatum, no further statements."

After that warning violence subsided in north Belfast, but it flared again on Thursday night, with the UDA believed to be behind attacks on police with petrol bombs and blast bombs.

The trouble broke out in the lower Shankill area after police moved into the area to search a house in Shankill Terrace. A pipe bomb, three blank firing pistols, ammunition and a timer power unit were found. So was cannabis worth almost £1,000. Some paramilitary regalia was also seized and a man was arrested.

The police said a blast bomb, about a dozen petrol bombs, fireworks and stones were thrown at them when they searched the house. Two officers were injured in rioting that followed in the area.

Meanwhile after six weeks of sectarian tensions, Protestant residents have offered to end the Holy Cross protests in north Belfast if Catholic children and parents went to school by bus.

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